Book review: It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work

I read Jason Fried and David H Hansson’s book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” and found it underwhelming. While the authors advocate a specific approach to running companies and building software, they base it all on the success of just their one company (Basecamp). They do not explain how companies of different kinds (or their employees) can adopt these practices if their operating contexts happen to be different. Some of the more easily adoptable ideas are Library Rules within offices, providing generous vacation time as perks, preferring fixed pay to bonuses and a few others.

The book is a quick and easy read and hence I recommend it, at least to get a sense of this alternate universe of software development! If someone is indeed able to run a company along these lines, more power to them! The rest of my review is just a list of points I noted down as I read the book:

– The book talks about not being ambitious, not being delusional about changing the world.

– The advice is preachy and not backed by evidence. Perhaps it assumes you are already well aware of Basecamp’s product and the reputation its founders enjoy? There is not even a passing reference to other companies who may be operating like this.

– Just saying that 5 days is enough, 40 hours is enough does not help people who find themselves working longer hours due to issues beyond their control.

– Emphasis on not breaking up the workday into small chunks and interruptions is good to see.

– Office hours is an example of a concrete practice at Basecamp. Another one is not having calendars public which would make it easy for other office workers to slice up an individual’s day. Another: no chat and status messages. Expect people to eventually respond.

– The company is not a family. There is good advice for leadership to walk the talk on these things.

– Do not scatter the employees efforts through casual suggestions or assuming some low hanging fruit exists.

– How Basecamp thinks about compensation: salaries are comparable to the top 10% of Bay Area no matter where the employee works from. There are no bonuses and stock options, but there is a profit sharing scheme.

– Basecamp’s approach to benefits is progressive. None of their perks involve the office space itself or having to stay there. They provide generous vacations, 4 day workweeks in the summer, money towards learning

– There’s an essay about writing detailed articles for an idea instead of a slide deck or a short document to pitch for it. And readers are expected to ponder and respond in depth rather than give off the cuff reactions. This approach may work well to hash out implementation details or summarize a concept that’s already been discussed. But I think it’s a very expensive way to validate an idea. The more time someone has put into the document the less pleased they’ll be to find big flaws in it.

– The chapters on the s/w engg process are very interesting. They advocate a minimalist and cautious approach towards features: set a deadline but be open to reducing scope, learn how to say no, do not go overboard if the customer is already happy, know when to sacrifice some quality in order to finish tasks, keep teams small, avoid meetings .. etc.

– Their decision to offer their product at a flat fee to their customers irrespective of how many user accounts they need is mind blowing. They’ve chosen to walk away from possibly good chunks of money by not chasing large corporate accounts. A great example of walking the talk.

– Similar is their decision to provide three parallel versions of their software(!), so that customers who signed up long back can continue using the old version.

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